The rise of the fall in photography


From the September 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

Pulled from behind, the man appears to be levitating, although he is wearing ordinary clothes and is in a mundane landscape. In fact, he was simply caught in the middle of a jump but, freezing for a moment, photographer Julie Borissova transformed him. Held in suspended animation, the man seems to defy gravity. The image floats the possibility that it will not fall.

The photograph is part of the Borissova series JB, about men floating in the air, and appears on the cover of a book titled Running Falling Flying Floating Crawling, edited and released in 2020 by Mark Alice Durant, which includes many more enticing images and accompanying essays. An unknown photographer in the 1930s captured an unknown girl in a bikini, propelled elegantly into the air; Denis Darzacq presents suspended people, Exorcist-like, at the supermarket; in I throw myself on the men, Lilly McElroy reimagines the phrase associated with embarrassing despair in a series of powerful superhero poses.

Of Muddy dance (2021) by Erik Kessels, published by RVB Books.

It’s the same in Muddy dance (2021), a sports photography book by Erik Kessels, which shows footballers sent into the air and at their most ballet. during this time Fall (2021), a photobook by Gabby Laurent, portrays the artist coming from a trimmer in various ways – going down the stairs, getting off her bike, up the sidewalk, and more. Laurent’s images tend to capture the end of the trajectory, the point just before hitting the bridge, so you can feel sympathy for her. But she plays with the idea of ​​control or the lack of it, because these are traps that she has planned.

Photographers have been capturing people in the air for as long as cameras can move fast enough to do so, as the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész and Eadweard Muybridge shows. The latter, writes Durant, hovers over the field “like the unmarried uncle who shows up at every party bragging about having done everything before”. As early as the 1870s, Muybridge settled a long-standing debate by showing that horses lift all four hooves in the air when galloping; his flagship work Animal locomotion (1884-1887), produced for the University of Pennsylvania, shows humans and creatures in motion, step by step.

From Falling (2021) by Gabby Laurent, published by Loose Joints.

Of Fall (2021) by Gabby Laurent, published by Loose Joints. Courtesy loose seals; © Gabby Laurent

Muybridge’s images were intended for scientific study, offering evidence by dividing and recording reality. Rebecca Solnit argued that he was buying time just as thief barons divided the American West – by taking control of space and time and ordering them in crisp grids. But if these images speak of control, they also escape it in one way or another. Applying science here creates something otherworldly, suggesting that people can fly, or levitate, or just defy gravity. If these are fragments of evidence, they are seriously misleading. If these are documentary shots, they are also in a way fake news.

“It is impossible to say anything about that fraction of a second that a person begins to walk,” Walter Benjamin wrote in A brief history of photography (1931). “Photography with its various media (lenses, enlargements) can reveal this moment. Photography brings awareness for the first time to the optical unconscious. For Benjamin, such images show that “the difference between technology and magic is entirely a question of historical variables”, and in doing so, they perhaps show something strange; the return of the repressed or a vision of something usual seen but not seen.

For Benjamin, this had revolutionary possibilities, the potential to shock viewers of more familiar interpretations of the world. But, he added, these images need captions, so as not to “get stuck in the approximate”; these life slithers must be attached, so that they do not float into the unknown. Susan Meiselas of Magnum Photos might agree. One of his best-known photographs, included in Durant’s anthology, shows a man with a gun, jumping on a sidewalk; the image is titled First day of the popular uprising, August 26, 1978, and it comes from Nicaragua, a series of photographs that Meiselas took for an entire year and published as a book in 1981. The man ran past in an instant, but Meiselas later met his mother and found out more about him; he was a Sandinista named Ernesto Cabrera who was only 19 when she saw him and 25 when he died.

Animal Locomotion, Plate 626 (1887), Edward Muybridge.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Plate 626 from Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal locomotion. An electrophotography of consecutive phases of animal movements. 1872-1885. Photo: Heritage Art / Heritage Images via Getty Images

For Meiselas, it seems, the timing was not enough. Her caption shows where and when she worked and what was happening; she found out who she had photographed and what he was doing. She also found out what happened next. “It is true that photographs stop time”, she comments in Images of a revolution (1992), the film she made about her Nicaraguan work. “But for people, time does not stand still. Maybe the photographs tell some sort of truth about the moments they focus on. But is this a sufficient truth? And for the people, who have to live in time, does this truth have any consequence?

This is a good question and one that haunts the so-called photography The falling man, by Richard Drew of the Associated Press. It captures a figure falling from one of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, diving head first and strangely still, though the larger footage shows it to be tumbling down. The man has never been formally identified and the image has become somewhat taboo; in the 9/11 report, it was only published once in the New York Times, for example, such was the outcry. In this case, readers were only too aware that the photograph was misleading. They knew that moment was a moment and knew the context even without a caption – this man kept falling and died because of it, like so many others.

Maybe all the fall scenes, even the lighter ones, carry some weight. There’s the same knowledge of the inevitable slowdown, and maybe that’s what makes them resonate now. We are still in the throes of a pandemic, which may portend more ecological collapses to come. Our lives have been thrown into the air and we still don’t know where we will end up.

Crawling by Mark Alice Durant (ed.), is published by Saint Lucy Books; Fall by Gabby Laurent is published by Loose Joints; Muddy dance by Erik Kessels (ed.) is published by RVB Books.

From the September 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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